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The more things change, the more others stay the same

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 18 July 2014

Perhaps it is a sign that I am getting old(er) but I am just astonished by the speed of technological progress. The most recent example is a memory card I ordered for my new smartphone. Its capacity is 128 gigabytes, and it is slightly smaller than my thumb nail.

For anyone born after 1990, this may not sound like a big deal but actually, when you think about it a bit longer, it is.

To put it into perspective, when Nasa sent Apollo 11 to the moon, the lunar lander’s computer had 64 kilobytes of memory. This means I have more than 2 million times the memory in my new phone than the astronauts had to get them to the moon and back. And, of course, I probably also have more computing power in my microwave than Neil Armstrong and his crew had at their disposal.

The IT developments I have witnessed in my lifetime are nothing short of amazing. Memory and processing power have not only been miniaturised. They have also become cheaper and cheaper. At the time I got my first computer, in 1986, one gigabyte of hard drive would have cost more than $100,000. Today you can buy hard drives with a cost per gigabyte of just 5 cents. In between all of this, the world of memory storage underwent revolution after revolution: from tapes to floppy disks, from magnetic to solid state hard drives.

Technology has regularly changed beyond imagination. Who would have thought in 2004 that you could once take your entire music collection with you in your phone? Who would have thought in 1994 that you could once have free telephony via the Internet? Who would have believed in 1984 that you could send costless electronic messages to almost any country?

The speed and depth at which technology has changed our lives stands in stark contrast to some things that have not changed. Time travellers from the 1960s would marvel at how we communicate, get our news or book our next holidays. However, they would practically feel at home in looking at how we vote in elections, apply for tax numbers, fight legal battles or deliver education to students.

Okay, public services may have also improved somewhat. But not by a factor of 2 million.

The older I get, the more I feel at home in the hardly changing world of government-provided services. It’s scary, and I am only 39.

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